It seems to me that the fundamental question to ask about Terri Schiavo’s situation is the following: If Terri had left a clear, properly executed living will stating that she did not want to be kept alive artificially under her current medical circumstances, should the feeding tube be removed? Depending on the answer to that question, two very different arguments follow.

If you believe that Terri should be kept on life support even in the face of such a hypothetical living will, then you are denying her the full ownership and control of her own life. You are claiming that the state has the moral authority to force a medical procedure on a person against that person’s wishes, if it’s for that person’s alleged benefit. You are, in effect, reducing that person to a piece of government property; such liberty as remains is by permission, not by right. Whatever that position is, it is not “pro-life”. (The potential derivative consequences of such a principle are pretty scary — for example, if the state can force medical procedures on people against their will then what if anything is fundamentally wrong with forced sterilization of the poor?)

On the other hand, if you think that the existence of a living will would be sufficient basis for removing the feeding tube, what you’re really saying is that the governing principle is respect for Terri’s wishes regarding her own medical care. In that case, the debate should be over the question of what Terri’s actual wishes were in this regard. What evidence is there, in actuality, one way or the other? Can we be certain of her wishes, or only establish some level of probability? How certain do we have to be regarding her wishes? And, if we can’t meet the appropriate standard of certainty, what is the legal default action? (Note that this is distinct from the question of what the legal default action should be; ignoring the way the rules are now because we don’t like the result is a no-no. See the post below.)

Viewed from this perspective, many of the arguments and legal manuvers surrounding Terri Schiavo just look irrelevant. It doesn’t matter, for example, who Terri’s legal guardian is. The decision about what medical care to give her doesn’t belong to the guardian — it belongs/belonged to Terri, and her preferences were whatever they were. There has been some discussion on the epistemological issue of what Terri’s wishes were and how certain we are about them. That’s where investigation and debate should really focus.

One Response to “How To Argue About Terri Schiavo”
  1. Rachel Clifton says:

    I totally agree with your thinking. As a matter of fact, I’m doing a research paper on this subject and Im going to use this as my main argument. Though, I don’t think her feeding tube should have been removed, that’s just my observation.

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